When the last sounds of their most successful single “Ahead By A Century”, the final encore of the final show of the Tragically Hip, died away at their nationally televised concert in Kingston, Canada, this past August, fans of this quintessentially Canadian band thought it might be the last they would see and hear of the Hip’s frontman Gord Downie. In May of this year, Downie announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. But this fall, he revealed that he had more to say as an artist, and has emerged again into the public eye with his just-released “Secret Path”.
We have seen musicians make performance art of their lives and deaths. David Bowie’s Blackstar, for example, was a valedictory creation that no one knew was his goodbye until the world was stunned this past January by his death from liver cancer. The video for his song Lazarus, released three days before his death, shows a sense of urgency to say all he can say as an artist before his time runs out.
When news hit the streets of Prince’s sudden and shocking death in April this year, fans were not surprised to find that this deeply generous performer had planned gifts for them. As mourning fans gathered around Paisley Park, Minnesota, outside the late singer’s memorial service, Prince’s family quietly distributed boxes in his signature purple, filled with memorabilia.
Whereas Bowie’s swan song was introspective, and Prince’s exit elegant and generous, “Secret Path” is not about Gord Downie at all. Instead, Gord offers a stunning legacy project that uses his public profile to shine light on a topic not well enough understood in public consciousness: the suffering caused by residential schools. The focal point of this ten-song album paired with a graphic novel by Jeff Lemire is the 1966 death of a 12-year-old Indigenous boy named Chanie Wenjack. Wenjack had run away from his residential school in Kenora and wanted to get home the only way he knew how: by walking. He didn’t know that his home in Ogoki Post was 600 km away. He was found dead of exposure and hunger by the railway tracks he had been following.
“Secret Path” is Chanie’s story, told through images, song and an upcoming hour-long video. Downie, in his iconic feathered hats and Jaws t-shirts, has spent his career giving a fierce storyteller’s voice to something like the Canadian spirit. When his brother Mike told him about Chanie, they knew they wanted to bring this story to light.
Much in the same vein as “Ahead By A Century”, the songs of “Secret Path” tend toward the dreamy and evocative, treating Chanie and his fear and death with gentleness and compassion. The music features Downie on vocals and guitars, with Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and former Stills member Dave Hamelin on all other instruments, except guest contributions by Charles Spearin on bass, Ohad Benchetrit on lap steel/guitar, Kevin Hearn on piano, and Dave “Billy Ray” Koster on drums.
Downie has returned to the stage to perform “Secret Path” in Ottawa and Toronto this month, and on October 23 CBC broadcast a one-hour video pairing the music with animated images from the graphic novel.
Proceeds from sales of “Secret Path” are being donated to the cause of reconciliation, making known the truth of Canada’s history with residential schools and supporting healing and recovery through cross-cultural education. In this way, Downie is making a statement and a legacy with what is likely to be his last project. The life force of his artistic voice, giving life to the story of Chanie Wenjack, will continue to make a meaningful impact in the world long after his physical voice is gone.
Pranada McBurnie is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She is the Managing Editor of Parvati Magazine, and the Communications Manager for Kupid’s Play Records. In addition, she is the editor for Parvati’s forthcoming books “Confessions of a Former Yoga Junkie” and “Aonani and the Emissary of the Blue Star”.